May 1, 2006

Pretty Ugly

This is getting really old. At the risk of adding to the noise, I feel like I still have to speak up. As the design vs un-design debate rages on, there seems to be an increasing amount of generalization.

What are you really fighting about? If the un-design proponents are right, do they win a bland internet? And if the design enthusiasts are right, do they win a conceptual web that no one can comprehend? Some spoils to fight over. You (we) are all fighting for the same thing. We all want something great.

If anything, this debate brings to light the fact that there is no sure-fire way to design and get your work noticed. It still takes hard work, great planning, great ideas, a little bit of luck. But, know this: you have a much better chance of creating a successful design if you embrace all these pieces and seek greatness in them, than if you don’t.

All of these things (ideally) support the message behind the site. It’s not about design for the web, it’s just about design. The web is a medium, just like any other. What if you had an ATM card that didn’t work in any ATM machines, but was the most beautifully designed ATM card ever? It would fail at its message and function. It’s possible to fail at your design’s intended purpose, in any medium.

Craigslist is often cited as a prime example for the ugly/undesigned site success story. Guess what, that’s because you can’t see past the visuals. Does that mean it fails or is poorly designed? Well, no, just one piece of the puzzle is missing. Fortunately for Craiglist, the other pieces are so strong that they are able to overcome it. Craigslist succeeds despite its graphic design. This is hardly a revelation. How many poorly designed sites litter the internet? How many sites fail due to their lack of design? Craigslist is an anomaly, but hardly par for the course.

It has little to do with elitism, and it has everything to do with human nature. If a poorly designed product succeeds is it the product’s fault, or the designer’s? Actually, it’s neither. Design and beauty should be there for everyone. We shouldn’t have to force it down their throats. The plain fact is that some people are content with something that just works. People buy used cars everyday because they just work. There is a broad range of what success can be, and a broad range of factors that weigh in on the end result.

Things are not either black or white. Good design is certainly not only something visually beautiful. I will yell it from the rooftops, design is communication! Which means: design is writing, design is organization, design is usability, and on and on. Design encompasses much more than you think. If you are still clinging to the idea that design is merely decoration, or that something has to be visually appealing to be successful, you are as thick as the mud you’ve been flinging.

Commentary (80):

1. Jeff Croft says… may 1, 2006 | 12:07 pm

Amen, Jason. Very, very well-said.

2. Web says… may 1, 2006 | 12:14 pm

Well said. Good design is good UI.

Just because a site lacks alot of “design” does not mean it lacks UI.

Also having a pretty layout does not mean good UI.

3. Smallest Photo says… may 1, 2006 | 12:21 pm

Hear hear! In all of this it seems the argument for un-design hinges upon the mis-definition of design as nothing more than decoration. Back when I studied Interior Design we often referred to Interior Decorators as Inferior Desecrators and I’m all for denouncing that bunch for there is an enormour chasm between design and decoration.

4. Eric Meyer says… may 1, 2006 | 12:23 pm

“How many sites fail due to their lack of design? Craigslist is an anomaly, but hardly par for the course.”

Spot on. The problem is that we (meaning humans) notice the exceptions, not the rules— it’s classic selection bias. So the hundred sites that failed due to bad design don’t register in our heads, whereas the one that succeeds despite bad design is really, really obvious.

5. Greg says… may 1, 2006 | 12:26 pm

I’d like to know what happened that made design has an enemy of the developer state. I can’t think of any time where designers started an uproar against developers or a particular code framework.

Code is dead! Long live the Internet Application!

6. Eric Lim says… may 1, 2006 | 12:26 pm

Let’s all just stop fighting =P

The problem is that everyone keeps correlating the success of a website with the design aesthetic of the site. In reality is almost seems like the Flying Spaghetti Monster’s Global Average Temperature vs. Number of Pirates chart: Nobody can say for sure that the two go hand-in-hand.

Everyone remember how Friendster was the first big social “friend” site out? And then MySpace came out shortly after, and everyone flocked to MySpace?

Does everyone remember why? Hint: It wasn’t because MySpace was “less” designed. It was cause Friendster’s servers couldn’t take the load anymore from all the traffic and the site basically became unusable, and thus began the reign of MySpace.

7. Mike D. says… may 1, 2006 | 12:32 pm

I have the ugliest ATM card in the world, but it works at all cash machines. Sometimes I honestly wish the situation was reversed though.

8. bearskinrug says… may 1, 2006 | 12:37 pm

Well-spoken, Stan…

9. Greg says… may 1, 2006 | 12:42 pm

The problem is that everyone keeps correlating the success of a website with the design aesthetic of the site

This is exactly what I’m talking about. Who is everyone and since when did design receive all the credit for the success of a website? I don’t know anyone who thinks like this. Sure there may be some back patting and inner-group accolades but outside of that who honestly pins the success of a website solely on design?

10. Josh Delsman says… may 1, 2006 | 12:45 pm

Which means: design is writing, design is organization, design is usability, and on and on. Design encompasses much more than you think.

Thank God someone has said something to this effect already. Very well said, Jason.

11. Travis Schmeisser says… may 1, 2006 | 12:46 pm

Yes! Well put. I hope those posing these awful arguments can see past the decoration angle and understand “communication” and the many other facets you touched on.

Design, like everything, has more than one side to it and they all work together to make the final product.

12. Ian says… may 1, 2006 | 12:51 pm

This stupid ATM card WILL work, I just need to melt these big glass beads off of it.

13. nek4life says… may 1, 2006 | 12:52 pm

You’re absolutely right Jason, the visual design is only one piece of the overall design. Communication is the most import aspect of any design. Well said.

14. Kevin Tamura says… may 1, 2006 | 12:59 pm

Well said Jason.

15. Mark says… may 1, 2006 | 1:03 pm

Design encompasses much more than you think.

I think both sides of the debate feel their contribution is underappreciated. Who are we agrguing with anyway? As long as my clients get it, I’m not too worried.

Very well said! :)

P.S. I’m actually designing an ATM card for a client this week. How weird?

16. Jonathan Eckmier says… may 1, 2006 | 1:05 pm
design is writing, design is organization, design is usability, and on and on.

Very well said Jason. I couldn’t agree more.

17. Michelle Flynn says… may 1, 2006 | 1:08 pm

Nicely put, Jason. I agree with Jon in hoping that this article this will tie up the ongoing controversy.

18. Edward says… may 1, 2006 | 1:11 pm

Jason, excellent write-up. What you say should already be obvious to those who call themselves professionals. Honestly, I’m not really worried about all this chatter (or ‘bollocks’).

No serious businessman would ever attribute the success to any product or marketing scheme to one single element. It is always a strong combination between the myriad of tiny parts that make up a whole.

So you don’t like design and think it’s crap. Fine with me. Just make sure that the rest of your product is good enough to make up for its failings in design.

Boy, sometimes I wonder if anybody even knows what “design” means. I appreciate your bolded letters but I even were they 100pt bold, underlined, italicized…the message might still get lost.

19. Jussi says… may 1, 2006 | 1:15 pm

Yes, design brings added value to the product. No, design alone does not create a product. This is hardly rocket science.

20. Dane says… may 1, 2006 | 1:34 pm

Yes, yes, yes! Design is so much more than pushing pixels. I was giving a presentation at a web design course at my University the other day, and the students were curious how I typically start working on a design.

They were a little bit surprised when I told them that before I dove into Photoshop, before I started paging through stock photography, before I even turned on my computer, I sketched things out on paper. Typically, before I even wireframe a layout, I’ll play around with content and architecture, figuring out what visitors to the site will really need versus what we want to give them.

I consider that whole process to be design, from brainstorming to sketching to architecting to wireframing. It seems to be difficult for some to grasp that point, that design is not chrome at all, but as you say, communication.

21. Jen says… may 1, 2006 | 1:41 pm

I couldn’t agree more. I visit lots of sites on the internets and I’ve been to “ugly” ones and “pretty” ones… it doesn’t matter how pretty or ugly a site is, what matters is whether or not I can get the information I’m looking for. I don’t care how “pretty” a site is if I can’t navigate in a logical manner or find what I’m looking for then the site has become “ugly.”

22. Keith says… may 1, 2006 | 1:53 pm

Thanks Stan. Perfectly put.

23. Natalie says… may 1, 2006 | 2:06 pm

I’ve been swerving clear of this debate, but behind the screen I agree with you. I tend to be fairly neutral most of the time, so I think in a case like this it’s not a topic that’s going to reach any real resolution. It’s just a bunch of biased opinions and some ugly glove-slapping. On second thought that’s probably too classy an image - more like spit-wad slinging.

“If the un-design proponents are right, do they win a bland internet?”

This is a beautiful point… there’s nothing to win here. It’s a good question to ask before you enter into any argument, I think… What do you get if you win? In this case, they’d get a couple pats on the back from their friends, and a little less respect from me.

24. Faruk Ateş says… may 1, 2006 | 2:27 pm

Well-said Stan. I’ve often tried to convey the message of what design is, but never did I manage to be as clear, concise and eloquent as you are. Very nice :-)

25. Colin D. Devroe says… may 1, 2006 | 2:35 pm

This article only need a little more cowbell, and it’d be perfect.

26. Paul Wilde L’Heureux says… may 1, 2006 | 2:51 pm

Design ≠ decoration. Google and Craigslist are examples of good design — they wouldn’t have reached their level of popularity if they weren’t. Are they visually appealing? Not by a long shot. The Google logo, now thought of as the most-recognizable brand mark in the world, is a good example of Photoshop amateur hour (drop shadow and bevel filters run amok, and a sore spot for graphic and identity designers everywhere). Google and Craigslist have also both held on to their retro HTML default color scheme — including those instantly recognizable bright blue links. Still, they both let their visitors find what they are looking for quickly and have interfaces that, in general, stay out of the way. This is good design. But it IS NOT GREAT DESIGN.

As Jason and others have said over and over, design is communication. Google, Craigslist and other sites that supposedly exhibit “un-design? got to where they are because they had great services and user interfaces that let people use them, not because they were designed by developers. In fact, Google and Craigslist are both good examples of hierarchical typography, even though their visual aesthetic is less than savory. But they, and most of the rest of the Un-Design, can be better. They can go from good to great design without giving up their identity or transforming themselves into high-bandwitdth, fancy-pants Flash-laden crap. Look at the new site. Look at the SXSW panel redesign of Craigslist. Compare Google results pages now with what they looked like when they first launched the Beta.

Being visually awkward may not hurt these popular “un-design? sites, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t benefit from a designer’s hand. And it certainly doesn’t mean that a lack of visual slickness propelled them to where they are. Slickness ≠ Design. Design ≠ Decoration.

27. Peter Kaizer says… may 1, 2006 | 3:06 pm

Well said… to your last point:
…If you are still clinging to the idea that design is merely decoration, or that something has to be visually appealing to be successful…
Just look at Google’s home page!!

28. Jameson says… may 1, 2006 | 3:29 pm

This isn’t a comparison between too much design and not enough design. It’s a comparison between good and bad. A site that forces visitors to endure a 10-minute Flash intro before getting down to work is bad because it isn’t functional.

That’s why it’s silly to use Craigslist as an example supporting the fallacy that people prefer sites without design: design is part of what makes Craigslist successful. In its case, the design is an “undesigned” look (or, to use an actual word, “minimalist”). If it were truly an undesigned site, the categories wouldn’t line up in those nice little columns. It’s just a functional, graphic-free design, and that’s working for them - so why undergo some drastic overhaul?

Basecamp isn’t flashy (no swooshes at all!) but nobody would call it undesigned. People who don’t know what they’re talking about just don’t realize that design can be done well enough that it doesn’t seep out around the seams. “Design” doesn’t necessarily mean drop shadows and big, chunky Helvetica. Good design doesn’t have to look designed.

29. Well Said says… may 1, 2006 | 3:51 pm

Well said, in fact I couldn’t agree more with your well stated argument that echos exactly what I was thinking and am otherwise unable to write as succinctly and brilliantly as yourself. Again, well said - just perfectly put.

Ok, I jest. But seriously, this debate needs to end, yes? And I think your article does a good job of silencing quite a few of the (as Greg would put it) asshats out there.

Well put.

30. Greg says… may 1, 2006 | 3:56 pm

But seriously, this debate needs to end, yes?

Yes. Well stated, Well Said.

31. David Zülke says… may 1, 2006 | 4:03 pm

Well said, Jason. I really think that those sites that are successful but ugly as hell also are successful because they were the respective firsts in their market and thus have the critical mass of users that other services won’t ever get (example: eBay).

32. Jason Santa Maria says… may 1, 2006 | 4:03 pm

Greg: *sigh*

But seriously, there have been some great points brought up here too in the comments. It’s sucks that we even have to break it down like this. I flopped back and forth between posting this or not, but I kept coming back to it being my job (and all designers) to help educate potential clients and co-workers to quality and appreciation of what we do. I know I will be doing it from now until the last client I ever work with, and I guess it’s just part of our job description :D

David Zülke: Being the first to market can definitely play a role, but you still have to be able to back it up. As Eric mentioned earlier, Friendster was one of the first to market with the social-friend-finder sites, and MySpace has since put it to shame. eBay is still on top because they have made some great decisions (PayPal) and listened to their users.

33. Dave S. says… may 1, 2006 | 5:20 pm

“I’d like to know what happened that made design [..] an enemy of the developer state.”

Every read any Paul Graham? Savant programmers are clearly more gifted than the rest of us, even in areas of expertise they know nothing about.

(See, it’s fun to blindly generalize and get an entire professional discipline all riled up.)

34. P.J. Onori says… may 1, 2006 | 5:48 pm

Thank you. Visual aesthetics is the last step in design, not the only. The prettiest site that is impossible to navigate/read is poorly designed. Paul Rand has said this so much more eloquenly than I in many, many ways.

35. Ray says… may 1, 2006 | 6:15 pm

“Yes. Well stated, Well Said.”

meme #2 (Spot On)

Spot On old chat! SPOT-ON. Wot!
Bleedin’ this and bleedin’ that. Bloody good job old boy… Spot On.

36. Simon Jessey says… may 1, 2006 | 10:15 pm

For me, the design equation boils down to two simple options:

1. Go for the very best design you can without sacrificing good usability and functionality.

2. Go for the very best usability and functionality you can without sacrificing good design.

I’m an “option 1” kinda guy, but that is partly because I can’t design worth a damn. I’d prefer to pay clever folk like Jason to do that sort of thing.

37. David B. says… may 1, 2006 | 11:23 pm

See, it’s fun to blindly generalize and get an entire professional discipline all riled up

you beat me to the punch, Dave, I think alot of people missed that comment. i have always wondered why developers and designers fight like this, but somebody did say both sides are vieing for attention and feel underappreciated.

being a designer and a fledgling developer i have neverhad those hang ups, i can see both sides of the fence and dont bother getting my pannies in a bunch because in the end if i can do my job well its the audience that wins out.

38. Joel says… may 1, 2006 | 11:57 pm

Excellently put!

39. Anon says… may 2, 2006 | 12:23 am

The real story is CONTENT is KING.

“Good” design in my estimate adds about 5% to a sites success.

“Bad” design is immaterial if the site has content people want and can’t effectively find elsewhere.

Craigslist (for example) has what peope want. That’s all that matters. They don’t go there to get their aesthetic fix. I truly fear the day some design jockey gets a hold of that site.

40. Ritz says… may 2, 2006 | 1:31 am

Design is about getting the people that would need a product or service to be comfortable and excited about what is being offered.

Maybe there was a f***ing genius designer that realized Craigslist would be realized and adopted faster with a more plain and straightforward design.

Good call, spot on, high five for good design!!!

When did designers become comfortable claiming what they feel is ugly as bad design?

41. Ryan says… may 2, 2006 | 3:24 am

Some people have such limited comprehension.


42. Dat Nguyen says… may 2, 2006 | 5:42 am

Jason, you’ve hit the sweet spot on the importance of design. If design wasn’t already there in Craigslist’s stupidly easy interface and non-offensive arrangement of content, it wouldn’t have been successful. The style component of design will only take you so far.

43. Joshua Porter says… may 2, 2006 | 8:08 am
“How many sites fail due to their lack of design?”

It’s also interesting to ask the opposite:

“How many designs succeed because they’re pretty?”

44. Mike Stenhouse says… may 2, 2006 | 9:16 am

This reminds me of Peter Morville’s Elements of User Experience diagram from a couple of years ago. Design is one element of the overall experience. If your idea is good (desirable) enough then you might be able to get away with less design because people will be willing to invest their time with you. Just look at MySpace. Most sites can’t do without at least some design but if you have a fantastic idea then don’t let design stop you from doing something with it. I wrote something about this a while back when I got to thinking about the proliferation of pretty but useless webapps.

45. Daniel Schutzsmith says… may 2, 2006 | 9:23 am

Like so many have exclaimed already on here, well said Jason! I especially like your analogy to an ATM - it gave me that aha! moment.

46. Jason Beaird says… may 2, 2006 | 9:54 am

We all want something great.
I agree whole heartedly. I don’t think any internet user will tell you they want more sites that look like craigslist, but they will all tell you they’d like to see more sites with great functionality and usability. The same goes for eyecandy conceptual design. It may work for a magazine ad, but the internet is an interactive medium and regardless of how cool it looks, functionality and content will always be the key to retaining visitors.

47. Greg says… may 2, 2006 | 10:00 am

“How many designs succeed because they’re pretty?”

Great question Joshua (I mean, well said). I don’t think that design ever succeeds based on the visual merit of the work. Of course I am referring to design for the web, not graphic design in general. But there is a level of satisfaction that a designer can have for his or her design solution to a problem/project. Other designers can have appreciation the finer points of the design without considering if the work is fulfilling it purpose.

My wife is an engineer. She and her group design schemes of pipes and large devices that turn sludge into jet fuel. The other day she brought some work home and included in this large pile was a spreadsheet of numbers and a blue print. I was called over to admire both. To me it looked like math homework and a really bad plot of the light-cycle scene in Tron but to her these two documents were beautiful. And I’m sure they were, to an engineer. I’ve been around enough engineers (nerds!) to know that her coworkers hovered over these same pieces of paper and gawked at the fine craftsmanship, pointing out a detail here and there. Just as developers are in awe over a set of code or a designer goes ga-ga over a color scheme.

Yet, no matter how pretty these documents are they are no good unless the result of that work produces success. In this case a refinery that doesn’t blow up Long Beach and in our case a website that does X, Y, and (hopefully) Z.

This is my long winded way of saying that I don’t think any design succeeds on visual merit alone. That’s called art. Whereas design is only one part of a larger process that creates something (web app, store, propaganda campaign, etc.) where success is determined as a whole.

48. 27 says… may 2, 2006 | 10:02 am

Well said, Jason. Maybe I’m a dunce, but I just don’t understand this debate. The term “design” covers so many angles other than visual presentation - usability, functionality, architecture. A decision to minimize graphic content on a site such as Craigslist is, in and of itself, a design consideration.

49. the Brightside says… may 2, 2006 | 11:51 am

To Joshua’s question—I think the sticking point for a lit theory type like me is that “How many designs succeed because they’re pretty?” isn’t the opposite of “How many succeed due to a lack of design?” It’s nitpicky, for sure, but when it comes to revealing the underlying structure of the debate, I think that kind of question unintentionally reinforces this weird and false dichotomy we’ve got going on.

This wasn’t meant to be an ad hominem, just an observation that it might be the colloquial language itself that points people in the direction of “design = pretty” as opposed to “design = communication.”

50. Jason Santa Maria says… may 2, 2006 | 12:09 pm

the Brightside: Absolutely right, and a great point. I’m not going to add too much more than that because my post here isn’t stunningly new territory, nor is the “design vs art” semantic debate, but I gotta ask, how did a “lit theory type” like yourself even end up on my site?

52. P.J. Onori says… may 2, 2006 | 3:24 pm

I agree with 27 - design is not just visual aesthetics. Craigslist has a plethora of strong design decisions which unfortunately do not include basic visual aesthetics. That being said however, the sheer usability of the site is a testament to well thought-out design. I would like to know the choices for the visual style chosen before I fully criticize it.

The thing that bothers me more than color treatment, typography or style is just basic proportions, spacing and visual contrast. Personally, if those issues were addressed, I think it would make a tremendous improvement.

53. the Brightside says… may 2, 2006 | 3:49 pm

The short answer: Because Cameron Moll linked to you from his blog. :-P

The long answer: I worked in a tech/writing lab back in college (Furman University FTW!), where I did some web stuff, which got me looking at web designers, which led me to Cameron Moll’s “Wicked Worn” tutorials, which after a few years led me to your site.

Either that or it was the ALA redesign. Fifty fifty odds, ‘cause I don’t really remember…

Now, the reason I kept visiting is because lit theory and design really aren’t too different when it comes down to it. I’ve spent a lot of time studying semiotics, and design and semiotics are basically the same thing. In linguistics, you have the semantic—the words you actually say—and then you have the semiotic, or everything you communicate without using words (e.g., body language, tone of voice, facial expression, things like that).

Design seems to me to be a way of crafting the semiotic so it bolsters and enhances the semantic content of communication. That is, the method of saying something can either help what you’ve said, or hurt it. If you scream “GIVE ME FIVE DOLLARS!” it transmits a different message than if you say it smoothly and quietly.

Uh… hopefully I didn’t come across as that huge of a nerd.

54. Joshua Porter says… may 2, 2006 | 4:25 pm

Brightside: I agree with your nitpickiness.

I would point out, however, that I was assuming that when Jason said “lack of design” in reference to Craigslist he meant “ugly design”. I only assume this because it is obvious that Craigslist has been designed quite purposefully. Not prettily, necessarily, but purposefully.

I think part of the problem is using the word “ugly”. Ugly is bad, negative, we all know that. How could you argue for ugly? You can’t.

What I think people are beginning to wonder about is an informal style, a sort of “planned messiness”, a wicked-worn look whose rough-around-the-edges style works because it is comfortable, non-elitist, and down-to-earth. Kind of like a 24hour diner.

Craigslist is like a diner. You don’t go there because it’s pretty, you go there to get stuff done, which it is designed nicely for.

Now, I think the bigger issue is that in many cases web designers are asked to “make this site pretty”. I’ve literally been asked that several times myself. But we’ve seen too many pretty sites fail and too many plain or ugly sites succeed that at this point prettiness just really isn’t much of a factor in the success of a site. Sure, on some sites it will be a factor. But it’s really unlikely that it will be a factor on social web sites like Craigslist. The social interactions are much more important. But prettiness is what designers are often asked for, and so becomes a somewhat misleading metric for success.

In other words, I agree with Greg.

55. Christopher Fahey says… may 2, 2006 | 5:51 pm

Jason, I agree with your general premise, but with one MAJOR exception: There is such a thing as design intended to avoid alienating those people who are intimidated by “good design” (I think I’m going to use a lot of quotes here around terms used to talk about design taste).

Think about the people who design the supermarket inserts in the Sunday tabloid newspapers, or who design the dermatologist clinic ads in the subways, or the banner ads for the casinos and the mortgage scams… are these people not designers? No. Are they bad designers? Well, that’s a matter of taste.

And taste is precisely what I think we’re really talking about here.

Craigslist, Google,, etc, are not sites with no design. They are sites which have chosen to employ a design approach intended to appeal to a broad, non-design-savvy audience. Working-class design, mass-market design. A different “taste” demographic than the people who haunt design blogs like Jason’s.

To those of us who live and breath high-concept, fancy, sophisticated design ideas, and to those of us with design educations and a love for certain schools of design thought, these sites look like they have no design at all, or worse that the people who designed them are mentally deficient. The difference, ultimately, is taste.

To use another entertainment equivalent, this is like the difference between Baywatch and The Sopranos. Baywatch was highly produced with healthy budgets, but the scripts were designed for an audience which doesn’t place a lot of value on highly “literate” writing. In fact, if the scripts for Baywatch were any “smarter”, they’d probably lose a good deal of their audience. They chose a style that matches their audience. To those who prefer snappy Sopranos-style dialogue, Baywatch seems like the writers didn’t spend any time on the script at all, or worse that the people who wrote it were mentally deficient. Again, the difference is taste.

Frankly, I think some design styles, like some literary styles, are better to me than others. I have my own sense of taste. I prefer to work on projects that allow me to design for what I think of as a more sophisticated audience, because that’s my “style”.

And although I think the Baywatch and Craigslist people know perfectly well what they’re doing, and have legitimate user-based reasons for choosing more lowbrow creative approaches, I still think that companies like HBO and Apple have shown that pushing the envelope and raising the bar can still be a winning strategy.

56. goodwitch says… may 2, 2006 | 7:14 pm

Stan, as usual, you are right on target.

Design is communication!

And as a girl who recently started supervising three designers, I’ve been spending a lot of time reading from the design masters. I loved this quote from Tufte on graphical excellence:

* Clear, precise and efficient communication of ideas. * Greatest number of ideas in the shortest time with the least ink in the smallest space. * Makes you think about the substance, not the method or design.

Thank god the web isn’t just vanilla.

57. the Brightside says… may 3, 2006 | 10:53 am

Joshua—You’re right on target, but I can’t help but think we’re talking about the same thing from two different angles. The client asking the designer to “pretty this up” is participating in the same cultural assumptions that pretty is good and ugly is bad; that’s a valuation you commented on, and were right about. “Pretty” is an extremely loaded term.

This is going to echo a discussion I had on Stylegala with Iron-On Resistance’s Dave Rau, and it’s really only a tangential point to Joshua’s image of the diner and Christopher’s mention of Baywatch and the Sopranos. But when it comes to the “authenticity” of a particular aesthetic, in this case the appeal of the diner to the dining crowd, it is because the diner is constructed or designed in a manner appropriate to their own self-construction that generates the appearance of authenticity.

That is to say, when you consider that humans have always fundamentally broken the world into groups of Us and Them, it is always easier to pick apart “Them” than it is to analyze “Us,” because you belong to Us, and have internalized the modes of communication that group uses.

So I guess I’m with Jason and Greg and the rest of you, rebutting people like Robert Scoble’s assertion that Craigslist is “undesigned” by arguing that it is designed, but designed in such a way as to be transparent to its users.

58. Territan says… may 3, 2006 | 12:44 pm

The only people that can view design as completely separate from interface and functionality are those people who can look at any design, no matter how beautiful, demure, plain, distressed, or filthy it may be, and react to it with total indifference and intellectual distance.

That leaves most Marketing and Legal departments… >*rimshot*

It doesn’t help that, within their natural habitat, web designers and developers are the most bitterly territorial creatures in existence. Admittedly that’s just a conclusion I drew at work where, although the design is uninspiring, the code is sloppy too.

I think part of the problem, the cause behind the periodic anti-design movement, is that the developers get so tired of interference from well-meaning but utterly clueless marketing people, and vent at the designers. What they forget is that the designers are also often beset by the same marketing folk in much the same way.

And, as <namedrop>Steve Krug</namedrop> would be quick to point out, any development team that leaves things like design or useability testing for the last moment will have the devil’s own time trying to shoehorn it in. It’s the sort of thing that’s best considered from the beginning of any project.

59. (s says… may 3, 2006 | 5:45 pm

Jason, I appreciate your (and many others’) efforts in trying to clear the air a bit. I’m not a designer by any standards, but I have designed websites before. As I commented on Greg’s blog earlier, What’s all the fuss about? Design and usability go hand-in-hand. Period. Those who get it are people like yourself, those who don’t … oh well. Another couple of months and there’d be yet another debate on this issue no matter how many people share your sentiments. This time, it was Scoble. Next time, it’ll be someone else.

After all, the minority whines in futility. I know it. I’m guessing that you do too.

60. Jason Santa Maria says… may 3, 2006 | 7:22 pm

(s: Well, that’s just it, I don’t think you can boil it down to a “they don’t get it, so oh well” type of argument. Our profession is one of service and education. We have to help people to understand why we do the things we do and why they are important. Like I said before, this is pretty much something I know I’ll be doing throughout my professional career.

61. Christopher Fahey says… may 4, 2006 | 2:20 pm

In defense of the “they don’t get it, so oh well” argument: As designers we do have the ability to choose, to various degrees, our clients based on how well they match us philosophically. Likewise, our clients choose us based on philosophical compatibility. I don’t target my company’s marketing efforts at clients who see design as extraneous decoration, and I doubt those kinds of companies seek us out, either.

You are right that it’s our job to help clients understand the importance of holistic design, but it’s also true that some of them are beyond help, and even have a hostile relationship with design. In general, we can happily ignore each other. In short, pay no mind to the haters.

On a bigger level, however, as members of a design community and advocates for design practice in contemporary culture and business, we DO have a responsibility to educate people more broadly, including the aforementioned haters.

62. dave rau says… may 4, 2006 | 11:54 pm

Jason, a great summary of a lot that’s going thru my own head lately on the subject.

Without really commenting on good and bad design I’ll say that I’m awfully glad there are so many folks who call themselves designers today. I’m glad there are people who are really committed to clear written communication, subtleties of typography and making things attractive and pleasing for my eye; all of which are fine pursuits!

Hooray for the designers doing things different, making things stand out, bringing a little (or a lot) of themselves into their projects. Jason is certainly one of them; I’m betting a lot of you guys writing comments here and elsewhere are as well.

And after reading some really negative comments on other design/css blogs I’m happy to read a lot of positive and constructive words on this very site.

Here’s to thoughtful designers everywhere.
*hugs all around*

63. Jason Santa Maria says… may 5, 2006 | 8:16 am

Well, that’s just the feel good comment of the day. Thanks Dave!

64. Johan says… may 6, 2006 | 10:34 am

in a article I wrote I emphasised that a design needs to take in account:

- organization of elements stressing the visual stability of form. Spatial objects in order to represent the very basic ideas of structure, to show solid links between the elements.

- Information design is a mark-up of the information I interchange. A meta-information: information about information, that enables to recognize relations, like linking the content.
The visuality of the meta-information is very important for the readablity, the patterns as well as the bits of the presented information.

65. Sebas van den Brink says… may 8, 2006 | 11:08 am

You are completely right. Design is communication. There’s even science behind it. Could you imagine a web where all sites look like Craigslist? That would be one bland internet. No recognition nor identity anywhere.

Good reaction you posted.

66. Ben says… may 10, 2006 | 1:03 am

People really can be a bit stupid sometimes. This is unfortunately one of those times.. the entire arguement, as you said, is rather asinine in sum. We all want things to be the easiest and to be the most functional and to provide us with everything we need. Who cares at the end of the day how we get there, as long as we do?

As you said, success stories for poorly-designed sites are few and far between, but when it occurs, it’s because the service that is being offered is more than capable of easily overcoming the inherant flaw of its visuals. A good example would be Google.. quite possibly one of the poorest visual experiences in terms of design that there is on the web, yet, it’s so useful, and so simple that the user experience doesn’t suffer from it in any form.

Design is, in and of itself, essential. Humans love beauty, that’s the way things work. We surround ourselves in it. We crave it, even in the simplest of forms. The web is no different. Realistically, if you had two of exacty the same product, one wrapped poorly, the other being visually appealing (in that the visual matched the product successfully), the latter of the two would be the first one most people would choose. Why? Because we like what triggers that something in our heads.

Personally, I think the web has a happy median at the moment. There’s a hell of a lot of good design wrapping useful content, and a lot of extremely useful content wrapped in unobtrusive cloaking. Take that balance away, and things are due to fail quite rapidly.

If you’re going to be successful on this place, you either need to look extremely good to the point where the product is irrelivent, or have a bloody good product to offer. Purely and simply, that won’t ever be different.

67. Sebas van den Brink says… may 10, 2006 | 5:56 am

And even though Google is practically designless - it’s logo is already somewhat iconic.

68. revision-d says… may 10, 2006 | 7:37 am

Perfectly put. A website can be sufficiently designed without looking immense (albeit a rarity I think).

I reckon this argument was bound to spring up due to the Internet’s relative infancy - there are still a ruck load of Frontpage efforts selling Bettys Buttons or whatever so a lot of people are just used to using websites that look crap.

69. truth says… may 10, 2006 | 10:15 am

hey jason,

look i’m not trying to hate or anything, but i think you need to let cameron rock his own thing. i think your stuff is really solid, but cameron’s is just that next level. i feel like his eye is just more refined and his design is a significant jump above yours. i’m sure you are good friends with cameron, and he would never say this to you, but you should consider just cutting off this collaboration. i think it’s just dragging his work down.

70. Jason Santa Maria says… may 10, 2006 | 10:27 am

truth: This is the second comment you’ve left to this effect. I deleted the first because it was out and out mean, and just like this comment you are speaking directly out of your ass. Do you base this on anything? Do you have anything resembling actual reason that would lead you to these conclusions? Just because you say something, does not make it true, because your opinion is not doctrine. You are not privy to any of our client communication or mine and Cameron’s. Do me a favor and get back to whatever it is you do at Avenue A/Razorfish in Philly. If you happen to come back and leave a comment, try to step out of your moronic ways… leave your name/contact info, stand behind what you say and be accountable for it. Otherwise, piss off and stop wasting my time.

71. Flip says… may 10, 2006 | 10:32 am

Oh snap! What a tool. How is it you know where he works, but not who he is?

72. Khoi Vinh says… may 10, 2006 | 11:51 am

In my opinion, when one adds a comment to a blog post, it’s important to say something intelligent that contributes to the conversation. Failing that, it’s important at least to be polite and apply common sense values when airing opinions. And failing even that, then at a bare minimum, it’s vital to at least add a comment that’s relevant to the post and/or the discussion at hand.

So, Mr. Truth: three strikes, you’re out.

73. Kent says… may 11, 2006 | 12:47 pm

thanks for the post Jason, and another ‘amen, brotha’ to you. Can I get a witness, even.

“I’ve been amazed at how often those outside the discipline of design assume that what designers do is decoration. Good design is problem solving.” -Jeffrey Veen

74. Aaron Martone says… may 11, 2006 | 1:16 pm

Excuse my language, and please don’t think me uneducated that I couldn’t express the following in a more articulate manner, but…


I think nowadays too many people consider good design as being low on the food chain, even though it can do nothing but make an already successful project moreso.

75. Don Ulrich says… may 12, 2006 | 6:05 pm

Nice commentary Jason. It is what I learned the past year. BTW I am looking forward to seeing your work with Mr. Moll. Ya do a nice job. ALA is very well designed..

76. Jonathan Mao says… may 13, 2006 | 1:48 am

Well said Jason!

Design should encompass an holistic view of the project. The criteria for “success” of a website are waaay much more than just the “look & feel”.

I hope you don’t mind, I put a link to this article on my blog :-)

77. CWW says… may 14, 2006 | 12:08 am

If it weren’t so preposterous that web designers are now having to define their discipline in terms a fourth grader can understand, it would be freaking hilarious.

Kudos to you Jason for keeping your wits about you… I tried a similar rebuttal, but ended up going on some rant about Myspace. It’s difficult to stay professional when faced with such stupendous stupidity.

78. Adrian says… may 26, 2006 | 4:01 am

In my opinion, when one adds a comment to a blog post, it’s important to say something intelligent that contributes to the conversation. Failing that, it’s important at least to be polite and apply common sense values when airing opinions. And failing even that, then at a bare minimum, it’s vital to at least add a comment that’s relevant to the post and/or the discussion at hand.

- Your comment awaits moderation … could help (not relevant … delete the post , this means alsothat posts that criticize a certain argument should be treated in the same way …)
- some post to what was said in a before post at some point or just comment on the article. Simply putting @ThePersonIaddressThisRemarkToo helps too

79. alain says… jun 13, 2006 | 6:31 pm

Who’s Stan?

80. Mag says… aug 28, 2006 | 6:26 am

Arguments on how web design should be won’t come to an end, so let everyone apply their own standards.